The Indo-Pacific (IP) as a whole and its subregions are becoming increasingly militarized. As always, military demonstrations are designed to bolster diplomatic activity of individual players.
These include, first of all, the two leading world powers – the United States and China, whose military and demonstration activity is constantly increasing at sea and in the air. Mainly in the South China Sea and Taiwan areas. But other significant players have been seen doing this recently.
India takes this kind of action eastward out of the Indian Ocean, which is encouraged by the same US, as well as Japan and Australia. Composed of these countries, the Quartet is trying to resurrect the QUAD configuration, which is considered, primarily by Washington, as a prototype of an “Asian NATO”. The idea of its creation has been periodically arising for about 20 years, though without any noticeable practical result yet.
Last November another Malabal naval was held in a four-way format. For the first time in its nearly 30-year history, they were two-stage, i.e. first in the Bay of Bengal (their most frequent area of operation) and then in the Arabian Sea, i.e. off the west coast of India.
The same “four-way” format is being used in this year’s Malabar exercise. From 22-26 August, they took place in the Pacific Ocean near the US-owned island of Guam. A preliminary announcement from India’s Ministry of Defense stated that exercises highlight the convergence of views among the participating countries on maritime issues and their shared commitment “to an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific and a rules-based international order.”
The last passage is a well-established mantra in recent years, with China’s opponents, allegorically accusing it of creating threats to the said “world order” as well as to “openness” with “inclusiveness”.
Let us note a critical circumstance. So far, India has avoided participating in military demonstrations by China’s “well-wishers” in particularly sensitive areas. These are, first of all, the waters of the East and South China Seas connected by the Taiwan Strait. The fact that India remains selective in its choice of locations for these demonstrations reflects the state of uncertainty in which Indian foreign policy as a whole has been in place for a long time.
On the one hand, as soon as the Cold War ended and India found itself in a state of “strategic loneliness” and had complex relations with the rapidly rising China, it established relations with the United States (the first bilateral exercise Malabar was held in 1992). At the same time, New Delhi is trying not to cross certain, quite noticeable, “red lines” so that the state of tension in relations with Beijing does not become irreversible.
Although to one such “line”, which is the Taiwan problem, in the author’s view, India’s movement has long been noted, ever since the Dalai Lama came to Taiwan in 2009. The convergence with the second “line” occurred during the voyage of two Indian ships to the Guam Island area when a joint exercise with the Royal Brunei Navy was conducted “en route.” As far as can be understood, this occurred outside the space of PRC’s claims to 80-90% of the waters of the South China Sea, but close enough to it.
However, there could be a counter-argument from Delhi in the sense that China’s Indian Ocean activity, which is very sensitive for Delhi already, particularly in the ports of neighboring Pakistan also for a long time has been marked by the Chinese Navy. The author by no means intends to answer here the pointless in such cases question of “who is right and who is wrong” and only regrets to state the growing distrust, to put it mildly, in relations between the two Asian giants. Each has its own explanation.
Recent years have seen military action in the IPs with France and Britain. Speaking at the 2016 Shangri-La Forum in Singapore, held annually by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, French Minister of Defense (now Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs ) Jean-Yves Le Drian pointed out that his country owns several small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as the primary motive for this activity. This implied that their small total area was compensated by the gigantic maritime area obtained by summing up the 200-mile “Zones of Exclusive Economic Interest” around certain French-owned archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean. And again, we know who is threatening IP’s “freedom and openness.” Even though these islands, together with the mentioned “zones”, are not less than ten thousand kilometers away from the PRC.
In any case, it seems that Paris has decided that together with its friendly partners, it should be prepared to parry such potential “threats”. In early April this year, French naval ships participated in the joint La Perouse exercise in the Bay of Bengal with India, the US, Japan, and Australia. The format of the exercise was described with the notable term QUAD Plus.
A month later, two French ships appeared in the Japanese port of Sasebo, in the area where triangular exercises were conducted (that is, involving units of Japan, France and the United States) to simulate repelling attempts to land “an enemy landing on remote Japanese islands.” The latter, in particular, means the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, possession of which is claimed by the PRC.
That is, this scenario had nothing to do with the issue of “freedom and inclusion”. And in the area of islands belonging to France, which are far away from the place of the exercise at the above-mentioned distance.
However, another month later, on the sidelines of the regular G7 summit in Britain, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed their intention to strengthen bilateral cooperation, including defense. This referred “to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific in view of an increasingly assertive China.”
As for the military intensification of Britain in IP, it is one of the practical consequences of the implementation of the document published in March of this year on the country’s security strategy for the next decade. One of its main provisions points to the need for a general shift (“bias”) in London’s foreign policy course precisely towards IP.
The first act of war on this course was the campaign to the Far East that began in May by a strike group led by the newest Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, accompanied by eight warships, including a US destroyer and a Dutch frigate. The squadron’s deck-based air group consists of ten “5th generation” F-35B fighters belonging to the US Marine Corps.
Passing the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Malacca, the South China Sea, September 5, the squadron entered the Japanese port of Yokosuka, which is the permanent base of the US 7th Fleet. Further multilateral military exercises are planned incidentally, in the Okinawa area, that is very close to the same Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and Taiwan.
The addressee of the message concluded in these events, first of all, fixed its receipt and, secondly, reacted to it in a somewhat skeptical way.
On its way home, the squadron will conduct joint exercises with the Indian Navy (in October). Apparently (and yet), in the Indian Ocean, not the South China Sea. This seems reasonable enough, bearing in mind the reluctance of both India and Britain to completely sever relations with the PRC.
On the whole, it remains unclear to the author why the both mentioned European countries need to concern themselves with problems on the other side of the globe so much (and probably quite costly). Why don’t people just sit at home?
It is no other than phantom pains haunting the same former metropolis of the recent British Empire “over which the sun did not set.” Although judging by the results of the recent elections in several constituencies and the Scottish Parliament, there are enough severe “raw places” in the United Kingdom to fully devote both the accumulated political energy and budgetary resources to cure them.
While meddling in IP’s problems only exacerbates their resolution, which increasingly depends on the state of relations in the China-Japan-India triangle of major Asian powers. It will be better for everyone if the “outside” players limit themselves to generating wise advice to the said trio.
Leaving it to its discretion to accept the said advice for consideration.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.